2011 Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez can’t do everything

2010 Record: 61-101, 4th AL West
2010 Prediction: 85-77, 2nd AL West
Diff: 24
2011 Prediction: 4th AL West

Impact Player: RF Ichiro Suzuki
Impact Pitcher: RHP Felix Hernandez
Best Reliever: RHP Brandon League
Top Prospect: 2B Dustin Ackley

General Manager: Jack Zduriencik
Manager: Eric Wedge (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
C Miguel Olivo, INF Brendan Ryan, DH Jack Cust, RHP Chaz Roe, RHP Manny Delcarmen, LHP Nate Robertson, LHP Royce Ring, OF Gabe Gross

Significant Departures:
1B Casey Kotchman, 3B Jose Lopez, DH Russell Branyan, C Rob Johnson, DH Ken Griffey Jr., LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith

DISCLAIMER: The Seattle Mariners have been impossible to predict the last two seasons.  They have been my kryptonite.  Ahead of the 2009 season, I predicted them to lose 100 games only to see them surprise and win 85.  Ahead of last season, I bought in (as I’m sure many did) and predicted them to match their previous win total of 85 only to see them lose 101.  If you’re a bettor, I would wager that the opposite of what I say will happen.

2010 was a disaster for the Mariners mostly because of the worst offense baseball has seen in a long, long time.  In fact, the M’s scored fewer runs than any AL team since the introduction of the designated hitter at just 513.  They finished dead last in every major offensive category besides stolen bases where they finished 4th (again showing the uselessness of the stolen base).  What made it worse was that the team was actually very good on the pitching side.  They finished fourth in team ERA, led by AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez and a strong team defence.

The Mariners enter the 2011 season with Hernandez still in the fold, but without many other high ceiling pitchers at the major-league level.  They also did very little to improve their offense and appear willing to wait for the arrival of some decent prospects such as Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin and Guillermo Pimentel.  It’ll be hard for them to be as bad offensively as they were last year, but it will also be hard for them to be as good throughout the pitching staff as they were last year.  The Mariners are currently spinning their wheels and it may be a few years before they’re relevant again.  At least the turnaround time in the AL West is historically quick.

Starting Rotation
Hernandez will once again front the Mariners’ rotation after his Cy Young season.  The award represented a sort of victory for baseball stat-heads (such as myself) as Hernandez not only played on a bad team, but had a mediocre 13-12 record.  His 2.27 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 3.32 K/BB ratio, and 0.61 HR/9 rate all equated to him being much better than pitchers with far more wins such as C.C. Sabathia, Clay Buchholz, and David Price.  If nothing else, the Mariners have him to hang their hat on, and he’s still amazingly only 25.

Outside of Hernandez, the Mariners have a serious lack of depth.  Jason Vargas is slotted in as the number-two starter after he posted a solid 3.78 ERA and 3.95 FIP in 2010, but he’d be a number-four or five on most good teams.

Doug Fister (HA…Fister…) posted a very solid 3.65 FIP despite a 6-14 record and a 4.11 ERA.  He has terrific command, especially for someone as tall as him, posting a 1.68 BB/9 rate and he keeps the ball from leaving the park (maybe not that hard to do in Safeco Field).

After those three, things get really thin.  Erik Bedard was brought back despite being injured for the vast majority of his time with the team.  If he can regain his health he could be effective, but it’s highly unlikely that he ever returns to being the pitcher he was in Baltimore.  That trade still ranks as one of the worst in a long time.

Also in the mix will be prospect Michael Pineda who was great in AA last year and then struggled a bit in AAA.  He’s only 22 and would probably do well with another year in AAA, but if he has a good spring, he could make the rotation.  Fellow prospect Chaz Roe, who was acquired from the Rockies in the Jose Lopez trade, could also force his way onto the team with a good spring performance.

Seattle also has a number of non-roster invites with solid major-league pedigree.  Lefties Fabio Castro and Nate Robertson could be pieces in either the rotation or the bullpen; righties Yusmeiro Petit (who’s anything but petit) and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger could also get a look.  Prospect Blake Beaven, who was acquired in the Lee deal, will also be in the mix but struggled in the minors in 2010.

Bullpen
Closer David Aardsma will start the year on the DL after offseason hip surgery which could set him back slightly for the whole year as those injuries often have arduous recovery times.  His FIP was elevated last year and he was very inconsistent.  He may be better suited in a middle-relief role.

Until Aardsma comes back, Brandon League could close.  If he proves he can handle it, he might permanently take the job from him.  Last season, League was solid, but not spectacular recording a 3.42 ERA and a 3.91 FIP.  His stupid 62.8 GB% was higher than anyone who pitched more than 10 games in the American League; he also proved durable hucking 79 innings in relief.

The rest of the bullpen is basically a crapshoot with as many names of candidates as innings available.  Lefties Garrett Olson and Luke French have the inside track for southpaws but will be challenged by Cesar Jimenez, Edward Paredas, Mauricio Robles, and non-roster invites Robertson, Castro, Royce Ring, and Chris Seddon.  From the right side, the Mariners have Dan Cortes, Josh Lueke, David Pauley (who could also start), Shawn Kelley, and non-roster invites Denny Bautista, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Miller, Chris Ray, Chris Smith and veteran Jamey Wright.  Trying to figure out who makes this team in the bullpen is a wasted venture.

Catchers
After being dealt to the Blue Jays from the Rockies in the offseason only so the Jays could decline his option and collect the supplemental draft pick when he signed elsewhere, Miguel Olivo decided to take his talents to the Northwest (I managed to go 12 previews without making that joke).  Olivo is a solid every day catcher with pop and the athletic ability to not only play solid defence, but also steal a few bases.  His 3.2 WAR ranked fifth among catchers in the NL in 2010 behind only Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz, Buster Posey, and Geovany Soto.

The backup catching job will be a spring battle between Adam Moore and non-roster invites Josh Bard and Chris Gimenez.  Moore probably has the most upside and therefore the most realistic chance at making the team.

Infielders
Chone Figgins
was involved in trade rumours this offseason after only one year of his four-year contract had passed.  Figgins put up his worst season by far in 2010 with a .259/.340/.306 slash line and was terrible defensively after being moved to second base.  He’ll likely move back to third this year which will certainly help him and the Mariners hope he can return to the form he exhibited with the Angels when he averaged a 4.0 WAR from 2007-2009.

At the opposite corner, Justin Smoak struggled in 2010 at the major league level after being traded from the Rangers in the Lee deal.  Smoak is still the centerpiece of that trade and has a very high ceiling.  He could be the power bat in the middle of the order that the M’s so desperately need.

The middle infield is much murkier as Jack Wilson at short and Brendan Ryan at second are currently the top players on the depth chart.  Both are fine defensive players, but neither offers much in the way of offense.  If Ackley proves capable of sticking at the major league level out of the spring he could start at second, which would mean Ryan and Wilson would battle for the shortstop job.  Josh Wilson is best suited as a utility infielder but he could also challenge for the job at short or second.

Matt Tuiasosopo was once highly touted, but has never lived up to his potential.  If he makes the team, he can provide depth at third base and also in the corner outfield spots.  Adam Kennedy and Luis Rodriguez are also in camp on minor-league deals.

Outfielders
Ichiro Suzuki was the lone offensive bright spot on this team in 2010 and is still its best player at the age of 37.  Last year, he became the first player ever to have 10 straight 200-hit seasons.  His 4.8 WAR also by far led all position players in Seattle and he still stole 42 bases despite his age.  He also recorded a 15.6 UZR in rightfield proving that his overall skill-set has yet to erode.  His style of play could be effective well into his forties.  With his contract coming up at the end of the 2012 season, the M’s may be tempted to trade the Japanese star if they’re not contending.  My guess is that both the Yankees and Red Sox would love to have him on their team.

Does Franklin Gutierrez remind anyone else of Alex Rios?  He has a large contract (although not nearly as damning as Rios’) and never seems to live up to his offensive potential.  He is one of the game’s best centerfielders and still looks like a star on this offensively-challenged group.

In leftfield, Canadian Michael Saunders did not look great at the plate in 2010, but he will still be given a shot to win the starting job.  Milton Bradley also has a chance, but he has to prove capable of handling his personal problems which he has never been able to do.

Gabe Gross is in on a minor-league deal and could be the dark-horse in leftfield after playing 105 games in Oakland in 2010.

Designated Hitter
The Mariners signed Jack Cust away from Oakland and he could be an impact player on the Mariners.  He was limited to just 112 games last season but still posted a .272/.395/.438 slash line and 13 homeruns.  If healthy, he could easily stroke 25 dingers and get on base a ton with his ability to draw walks.  He’s routinely among the league leaders in walk-rate.  His drop-off in isolated power has to be a concern, but he’s still going to contribute a lot in this lineup.

Depth chart, lineup, and pitching staff info from me to you, can be found here.

Overview
Like I said in the opening, I’m catastrophically wrong about the Mariners every year, so don’t believe a word I say in this section.  I don’t think the Mariners are as bad as they were last year, but their pitching staff will also struggle without anyone outside of Hernandez.  With the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels all fielding much better teams on paper, the Mariners may be a punching bag for the AL West.  If they struggle really badly, look for GM Jack Zduriencik to move both Ichiro and Hernandez before the deadline.
Final Prediction: 71-91, 4th AL West

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